Pump It Up: From Bicycles to MotoGP

How Michelin and Dunlop changed bicycling and motorcycle racing forever

eddy merckx sharing the podium with bibendum
Eddy Merckx looking a tad uncomfortable sharing the podium with BibendumMichelin archives

The year of 1889 was good for motorcycles. Although motorcycle production didn’t begin in earnest until more than a decade later, the international fraternity of throttle twisters owes a debt of gratitude to two French brothers and a Scottish veterinary surgeon who caught the vision of pneumatic bicycles tires and established what would become Michelin and Dunlop, providers of racing tires to MotoGP, Moto2, and Moto3.

Solid rubber tires were the norm in the early days of bicycling, and the development of removable pneumatic tires was a breakthrough. Édouard and André Michelin had their "Newton’s apple" moment when a cyclist friend stopped by their agricultural goods and farm equipment business for assistance with his flat tire, which would take hours to repair. John Boyd Dunlop—already experienced with the properties of thin rubber—saw the light after tinkering with his son’s tricycle. The bicycle boom was on, and two major tire manufacturers were established to capitalize on the fitness craze.

Michelin’s first competition was the 1891 Paris-Brest-Paris, the longest bicycle race ever staged. Charles Terront won the 1,200-km event, completing the route in 71 hours and 18 minutes, nine hours faster than his closest rival. In the 1960s and ’70s, Michelin sponsored the mighty Peugeot professional cycling team from 1965 to 1985; Dunlop co-sponsored the team from 1925–1962.

Willie Hume demonstrated the durability of Dunlop's tires in 1889, winning the tire's first-ever races in Ireland and then England. The captain of the Belfast Cruisers Cycling Club, he became the first member of the public to purchase a bicycle fitted with pneumatic tires, so Dunlop suggested he should use them in a race. On May 18, 1889, Hume won all four cycling events at the Queen's College Sports in Belfast and a short while later in Liverpool won all but one of the cycling events. Among the losers were sons of the president of the Irish Cyclists' Association, Harvey Du Cros. Seeing an opportunity, Du Cros built a personal association with Dunlop, and together they set up a company that acquired the rights to his 1888 patent.

Two years after he was granted the patent, Dunlop was told it was invalid because Scottish inventor Robert William Thomson had patented the idea in France in 1846 and in the U.S. in 1847. To capitalize on pneumatic tires for bicycles, Dunlop and Du Cros resuscitated a Dublin-listed company and renamed it Pneumatic Tyre and Booth's Cycle Agency. Dunlop retired in 1895, and in 1896 Du Cros sold their whole bicycle tire business to British financier Terah Hooley for £3 million. After some corporate retooling, Hooley resold the company to the public for £5 million. Du Cros remained head of the business until his death. Early in the 20th century it was renamed Dunlop Rubber.

kenny roberts leads freddie spencer race action
Kenny Roberts leads Freddie Spencer during the highly competitive 1983 seasonYamaha archives

Dunlop’s MotoGP fortunes have been mixed over the years. Three-time world champ Kenny Roberts Sr. switched from Goodyear to Dunlop after the former company pulled out of motorcycle sponsorship in 1981, and despite Roberts’ best efforts, mechanical failures and nail-biting competition with young upstart Freddie Spencer in 1983, Roberts finished second overall to Spencer by just two points, when the two Americans each won six races on the 12-race calendar. Spencer was racing on Michelins that year. The following season, Randy Mamola became the first rider to win a motorcycle Grand Prix on Michelin radial tires.

wayne rainey race action
Three-time 500cc GP world champion Wayne Rainey claimed two titles on DunlopYamaha archives

American compatriot Wayne Rainey took two of his three 500cc world titles riding Dunlops, in 1991 and ’92, racing for Roberts’ Marlboro team. Dunlop was appointed as sole tire supplier at the launch of Moto2 in 2010 and Moto3 in 2012. This followed a period where Dunlop-equipped motorcycles dominated the 250cc and 125cc categories that preceded the two classes in the FIM World Championship. Dunlop dropped out of MotoGP in 2008.

At the beginning of the 1930s, Michelin introduced its Golden Arrow and Zig Zag tires, devoted entirely to motorized two-wheelers. World War II brought motorcycle tire development to an abrupt halt, and it wasn’t until the end of the 1960s that it would take off again with the arrival of Japanese motorcycles.

barry sheene holds michelin tire
The ever-smiling Barry Sheene shares a joke with the Michelin tire team in the late 1970sMichelin archives

The 1970s were a turning point in the history of the brand. Michelin won several titles during this decade, most notably in 1973 with its first victory with Jack Findlay, who won the Senior Tourist Trophy. In 1976 Barry Sheene won the 500cc GP world title with Michelin. A year later Michelin won the 50, 125, 250, 350, and 500cc World Championships.

In 1990, Michelin introduced silica into the rubber tire compound, striking the right balance between rolling resistance and grip, without adversely affecting the tires’ grip. By adding silica, Michelin was also able to improve a tire’s performance in the wet.

valentino rossi celebrates motogp victory
Nine-time MotoGP world champion Valentino Rossi celebrates another victory, one of many on Michelin tiresMichelin archives

Michelin participated in MotoGP from 1972 to 2008, returning in 2016. They introduced radial construction to MotoGP in 1984 and multi-compound tires in 1994. They took 360 victories in 36 years, and from 1993 to 2006, the world championship was won by a rider on Michelins. Three racers have won three or more 500cc/MotoGP world titles on Michelins: Valentino Rossi, Mick Doohan, and Eddie Lawson.

Boulanger prefers Michelin Pilots on his cruiser and touring bikes because he loves putting on the miles and riding in the rain.